wowair.us (2017) typically advertises fares of $99 for a one way trip to Iceland, from Chicago and Washington DC. The return fare is higher, unless one plans to stay in Iceland for an extended period.
Iceland has a population of 320,000. Quirky observation: I did not notice any bald men there. I was potentially the only one in Reykjavik, the capital, with a polished top. When I asked our hotel receptionist what the secret was on our second day, he quipped that they have lots of sheep in Iceland.
On any given day there are more Americans in Iceland than there are natives. There were 2 million tourists in 2016. English is as popular, if not more popular than Icelandic.
Keflavik Airport, KEF, was built in 1943 by the United States Army. After being used by NATO, civilian authorities obtained control of the airport in 2009. Since then, tourism has been growing by as much as 30% per year. Iceland has embraced their relatively new found fortune and several tourist offices dot the streets of downtown Reykjavik.
If there are more than one person travelling together, it makes economic sense to rent a car. The car and the driver need to be stoic as the highways are desolate stretches. When I drove in mid March, there were miles of frozen tundra on either side, with nary a car ahead or behind. (Since 1968 Icelanders have been driving on the American side of the road). The lack of trees in Iceland bothered me; reforestation efforts are ongoing.
My main attraction was a geothermally heated lake, called the Blue Lagoon, located near the road from KEF Airport to Reykjavik. The water color (attributed to silica and sulfur) is turquoise, in striking contrast with the grey surroundings. The water temperature ranged from warm to tantalizingly hot in the vast lagoon under frozen open air. Ambient air is pushed back continually by thick wisps of steam drifting upwards and sideways over the lagoon, shrouding the environment and creating mystery with soft contours. The lagoon itself is vast with nooks and crannies. Miniature arched wooden bridges separate different areas.
Once in the water, it was supremely blissful. The amenities (including white silica and green algae face masks, as well as an in-water bar, saunas, steam rooms, a grotto, and thundering warm water cascading down to one’s head and shoulder) were nothing to scoff at either. We stayed in the lagoon for hours and returned again for a dip after lunch at the Lava restaurant. I smiled at the falling snow and reveled in the flakes on my forehead and eyelashes. Only the thick ones made it down to our level, the smaller ones just vanished in the air. What a concept, enjoying the soft snowfall in swimsuits under the open winter sky. (Perhaps you should read about our trip to the Ice Hotel in Quebec, also).
There is an entrance time for pre-paid tickets, but one can stay as long as one likes, until 11pm. The staff is interactively friendly. Along with the bar in the water, there is another bar, a cafeteria and the Lava restaurant on the premises. Before 4pm, guests are allowed at Lava wearing robes; after 4pm the dress code is more formal.
A profusion of geothermal pools apparently makes the population of Iceland happy. For more information here is a CNN report from March 20, 2017: (The Secret to Iceland's Happiness?)
On the other hand, there are many postings on why the Blue Lagoon is not that great a place to visit, e.g.: (Things No One Tells You About the Blue Lagoon).
What Icelanders call the "Golden Circle" is actually a Golden Line with jewels on either end, with Reykjavik to the west, and the Geysir along with the Gullfoss Falls to the east, 110 km away.
The Geysir area has a host of white steaming spouts lined up against a backdrop of grey hills (winter scenario) and the spouts lead to the Strokkur Geysir, which is followed by another big Geysir. (Did you know that the English word Geyser derives from Geysir)? Strokkur is the darling of the tourists as it is quite punctual and spouts every 8 minutes, with a few intermediate eruptions also. Sometimes the gushing steam and water reaches moderate heights but quite often elevations such as 100 ft. are breached. The big Geysir next to Strokkur erupts during seismological events, has reached heights exceeding 500 feet, and has been manipulated by humans (government employed seismologists) to erupt on demand.
Ten miles away are the Gullfoss Falls. My beef with nature with respect to Gullfoss is that she put the main waterfall behind a ridge so that the majesty of the immense lateral body of water hitting the bottom is hidden from anyone directly facing the falls. There are several distant stages to the GullFoss Falls visible to the eye simultaneously but only the upper part of the final major drop is visible from the front. The cascading breadth of water falls into a deep chasm, below the line of sight. I can’t help wondering about the custom weather conditions fostered by the Fall at the bottom of the massive chasm.
There are paths leading to the edge of the Fall from where a side view of the main white water drop is available, as well as a view of the upper stages of the expanse of water. In summer, a pathway to the lower levels is made accessible.
The major attraction I missed while in Iceland are the Northern Lights, although I was there for four days. I took pictures of the night sky of what I thought at that time were the lights, but having seen the extraordinary pictures available on the internet, I now beg to differ with myself.
There are other attractions along the “Golden Circle” but I preferred to savor Reykjavik, a city with a striking backdrop (picture a long, extended snow capped mountain range with sunshine glinting off the snow). The locals are warm and welcoming. In general, I did not find them jaded yet from the onslaught of tourists they encounter. The friendliness of the men and women we met at Reykjavik is worth elaborating.
On our last day, we entered a coffee shop before driving to the airport, about an hour away. There were no tables free and we walked out of the cafe, when an American couple from Colorado got up (and the young man actually came out to the street to offer us their table). As I thanked the young lady, while the guy settled bills, she accepted my thanks in what I perceived to be a guarded manner with a hint of a smile. (Being a US citizen, I quite understood and could justify the caution). The local folks we met were generally more spontaneous and interactive, perhaps because they are from a smaller, more intimate environment. CNN opines that their friendliness stems from the frequency of geothermally heated community pools. (Follow the CNN url above).
The level of satire, whether in a city sculpture, store signs or menus and the level of conversational humor is catchy. Next to Lake Reykjavikurtjorn, near the town hall, is a satirical “Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat,” a sculpture by Magnús Tómasson done in 1994: (Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat)
We watched a man all by himself next to Lake Reykjavikurtjorn, which was teeming with swans, gingerly approach one sitting on the side with his (the man’s) arms outstretched, descend on the creature, grab it with both hands, straighten up, raise his hands, outstretch them again, and let the solitary swan fly back to the lake. I have a feeling that the swan and the man know each other, because it did not move away or struggle at all.
Wonder if this live cam overlooking the lake will work: (Lake Reykjavikurtjorn Live)
At a café I complimented an elderly beaming sever, who was clearing away our dishes, on the number of items she was carrying on her arms and she agreed to train me, with an enigmatic smile.
Our hotel receptionist was always eager to know if we were satisfied with our lodgings and never spared us his special brand of humor. BTW, it was not a hotel. We stayed at Apartment K, and lucked out by being assigned a downtown apartment (a block away from the reception office).
For no reason, my better half took a tumble on main street, Bankerstraeti, while the gentleman was leading us to our room across it – I think she was giddy with excitement and tripped on the suitcase I was hauling ahead of her – and he paused his lecture on the history and attractions of the locality and gave her ample time to recover, although there were people waiting for him back at the reception desk.
As soon as he showed us the apartment, I declared I had fallen in love with the bathroom, not having ever seen such elegant ceramic curves during my limited travel; the sink and toilet were modern and the large bathroom had a steel towel heating rack (think warm white cotton towels), as well as floor to ceiling tall glass shower partitions along with a cobbled floor and walls.
One detraction was that although he insisted that we save money by drinking the kitchen tap water and we did so without any adverse effects, there is a smell in the water akin to hydrogen sulphide (think mildly rotten eggs) possibly, and it was hard to rid the bathroom of odor.
I was out on a morning walk by myself along Bankerstraeti on our last day (before we packed up and left for the airport via the coffee shop). My other half had given me instructions to find “The Icelandic Phallological Museum,” take a picture, and send it to our son’s “other mother” back Stateside. My iPhone took me close to the museum, but then I had to ask a bunch of youngsters where it was, as the sun got in my eyes, etc. (I did get the picture and sent it asking the sendee to blame my spouse for this particular email).
It turned out that these young folks were friends, who had assembled prior to dispersing to their respective places of work. I offered to buy them coffee. Instead they bought me coffee and told me about their plans to start a business catering to tourism. I found the plan quite credible and put in my two cents. They offered to invite me back when their business took off; if only I had left my contact information with them! A great morning, nonetheless, by any stretch!
To take full advantage of the attractive walking area in Reykjavik, I would suggest staying downtown instead of driving from the bigger hotels, some distance away. Bar hopping will be safer. The second bar I went to, Gaukurinn, had a vaped ambiance. Prior to that, the bartender at Kaldi had me taste a lot of beers before allowing me to buy a Belgian beer crafted in Iceland.
Street Parking has three zones and parking fees are applicable from 9am to 6pm. Zone 1 is on main street (Bankerstraeti), and Zone 2 is a block away. Zone 2 Parking rates are approximately a dollar per hour, and Zone 3 Parking, another block away, costs even less). Street Parking is challenging on Thrusday, Friday and Saturday, only in the evenings. Garages with plenty of parking are available within walking distance. Also free parking is safe and available (but probably unholy) at Hallgrímskirkja Church, 11 mins walking distance from Bankerstraeti.
Lecture Mode On:
DO bring or buy a peanut butter jar and jelly and bread for serious savings during the trip to Iceland, if you’re on a student budget.
Food is expensive at cafes, e.g. a Bacon Hamburger costs kr. 2290 (~ $21) and a Breakfast Omelet is kr. 1600 (~$14.50). Burgers and Omelets come with sides.
Coffee, bakery goods, beer prices are reasonable (?) e.g. a bottomless cup of coffee costs kr. 490 (~$4.45), Caffe Latte kr. 590 (~$5.35), Muffins kr 450 (~$4), Beer kr.1100 (~$10). These prices are from March 2017.
There is no tipping in Iceland, not even a line under the credit card total to put a tip in. If a US/Foreign credit card is used for food, significant VAT/VSK taxes are listed on the receipt, but not charged to the credit card. (Only the total price of food and drinks is charged, not the additional tax listed).
DO buy at least gravel insurance ($9 per day) if you rent a car. (I’m chicken so I bought bumper to bumper zero deductible insurance for $35 per day). While renting our car, my wife asked the gentleman at the counter if a lot of cars were returned with damages and he said the most common impact was to the windshield from gravel spray. Sure enough when we returned the car, a lady customer next to me was told that there was gravel damage to her windshield and she would be charged for the replacement of the windshield. I asked her how much she would have to pay and she responded that she was scared of finding out.
The highways in Iceland have a gravel(ly) surface and the tires of the car in front may kick up and hurl pebbles at the car behind. Horror stories related to rental car insurance of lack thereof in Iceland, albeit old, are available on the internet.
DO bring a flashlight to check the body and windshield of the car before you rent it, in case your flight arrives before dawn and it is dark outside. Know that the rental company representative will conduct a detailed check of the external body when the car is returned.
DO clean the inside of the car before returning it to avoid additional charges.
(If you do rent a car at KEF and the rental counter is at the airport, you’re in good shape, and will need to contend only with lines. I rented from a company that did not have a counter at the airport. There are no signs inside KEF airport with directions, and the gentleman at the Information counter was overwhelmed. If you face the car rental counters, the exit on your right (behind the info desk and ATMs) is the one you need to take. You’ll need to cross a couple of lanes in front of the building and make a left on the third sidewalk until you reach the bus stand used by offsite car rental companies).
DO rent a gps device (with the language of your choice on it) for about $10 a day to avoid cell phone tower gaps on long drives. It’s also advisable to compare googlemap directions with gps directions since there are destinations with similar names.
On the topic of navigation, while returning to the international airport, the gps device and the road signs may conflict. Pay heed to the highway signs over the gps. Use the Keflavík option on the gps device until you near the Keflavík village and then use Keflavík Flugstöð to get to the car rental return near KEF.
DON’T forget to feed the parking meters at Reykjavik between 9am and 6pm (credit card payment works fine, English can be selected on the meters). The pretty parking police are hyper active.
DON’T use a credit card that imposes foreign transaction fees. Most credit cards charge this fee. Here is a list of credit cards that do not: (No foreign transacion fee credit cards). Always pay charges in the local currency (or the local merchant will charge you foreign transaction fees).
Caveat: I read an account of a visitor to Iceland who stayed for two months without using any Icelandic Kroners and got by using credit cards only. DON’T count on your credit card at gas stations.
I visited three gas stations. The pump at the first one asked for a PIN number for my credit card(?). I punched in the PIN but got an error message. I went inside, bought a gas card with my credit card and used that card to buy gas at the pump. The young attendant came out three times to help me, while other customers had lined up at his counter, apologized, and described his pump as stupid.
My card did not work again on another day at another gas station. I chose English as my preferred language and got fleeting error messages from a tower of babel. I went in to the attached store and the pretty young lady raised her voice at me and said that her shop was a Yoyo (Yogurt) shop not a gas shop. I got no gas at that stop. Driving to another gas station my credit card did not work for the third time. The operator inside just unlocked the pump from his counter, let me fill up my tank and then took the credit card payment inside.
My credit cards worked flawlessly everywhere else. PenFed Visa did not charge me any fee for overseas purchases. (I had to call them prior to leaving for Iceland and inform them of the duration of my stay). Cash advances from ATMs using credit cards give the best exchange rates. Upon returning to the US, I paid an interest of 0.02 cents on a $100 advance I got using my PenFed Visa at an ATM (using my PIN), a week earlier at KEF airport in Iceland.
DON’T buy the Comfort, Premium or Luxury Packages at the Blue Lagoon if you are on a tight budget. The Luxury Package is almost ten times more expensive than the basic Standard Package. (See ticket prices). On the day I was there the silica mask and algae mask ingredients were being handed out to one and all at the lagoon. Except for two free drinks and bathrobe/towel/slippers, I did not get too many extras having paid for the Premium Package. If it’s cold outdoors (without a robe) there is a way to get into the warm water indoors and then make your way outdoors keeping your body submerged.
On the other hand, I heard a gentlemen at the lagoon tell his partner that he would buy a ticket for his daughter (living in the US) to mainland Europe via WOW airlines through KEF and also buy a package for her for the Blue Lagoon, so that she could experience it between flights. I totally concur with that plan, and think that that’s one lucky daughter!